Ezra Klein has some good words for the “Race to the Top” contest that the Education Department has been running for states to access $4.35 billion dollars in stimulus funds. He describes it here:

Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion grant program created in the stimulus package. You can read the official description here, but the short version is that the states submit proposals to improve their education system to the federal government, and if the Feds approve, the states get a pot o’ money with which to implement the plan. The idea isn’t just to fund public schools, but to use the promise of federal money in a time of strapped state budgets to empower reformers. The program has garnered bipartisan praise, including a glowing column from David Brooks.

Race to the Top just announced their first two grant winners, Tennessee and Delaware, yesterday.

I hope we can be honest about what this actually represents: blackmail. It forces states to change their education laws to fit particular notions about how to manage public education in America. And it does so at a time of crippling state budgets, when the Race to the Top funds mean the difference between thousands of teachers laid off or kept on the job, between class sizes expanding or shrinking. Basically, Arne Duncan and the White House are leveraging crisis to make preferred changes in education policy.

And let’s be very clear about this: the changes sought are entirely at the discretion of Arne Duncan and the Education Department. These changes include ideas typically advanced by “reformers” like charter schools, merit pay for teachers and many other “market solutions” for education. You can agree with these ideas or not; I’ve heard arguments on both sides, and it’s important to note that teacher’s unions largely agreed with the changes in Tennessee’s policies that draw the Race to the Top grant. And let’s not be naive in thinking that the federal government doesn’t leverage public money to garner preferred policies in the states all the time – that’s basically how the speed limit works.

But the metrics for winning these stimulus funds comes down to “what Arne Duncan likes about education policy.” I don’t think he’s somehow all-knowing about it, or has access to the best policy prescriptions for every school district in America. The data is not conclusive about the effects of charter schools, or merit pay, or test measurement, or any of the jumble of new ideas in the education sector. It’s just not, no matter what anyone on either side tells you. We could be experiencing “declines” relative to the rest of the world on education based purely by cultural factors and more funding for education in developing nations in Asia and elsewhere. I don’t believe we have the kind of “comparative effectiveness research” to cement that certain kinds of learning environments or school structures beat others; given all the variables, I don’t know that we ever will.

What we do know is that only one side of this debate is withholding funding until their preferred policy prescriptions are enacted. And they’re doing it at a time when the biggest obstacle to education in America in the near-term can be measured in dollars and cents. Giant budget shortfalls in the states mean layoffs for teachers and worse opportunities for students, whether your state has a cap on charter schools or not. The compassionate education policy at this time is not to shock-doctrine states into changing their ways, but in allowing them the means to survive and not fail a generation of students.

The Obama Administration wants to extend the Race to the Top program for the 2011 budget. And that’s their prerogative. But let’s not pretend that’s a decision entirely borne out of a desire for students to reach their educational goals. No, that would look more like giving schools what they need to maintain their current effort.